Ron Wilson. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
After leaving Toronto with a bad taste in his mouth, Ron Wilson is back behind the bench with professional and patriotic redemption in mind.
A two-word phrase made famous by Seinfeld sums up Ron Wilson’s life over the past three years: “serenity now.”
He’s lived in peace and off the grid since the Toronto Maple Leafs fired him from his fourth NHL head coaching job in March 2012. He’s been golfing, boating and relaxing with wife, Maureen, at their home in Hilton Head, S.C. Wilson has barely set foot in an arena since leaving Toronto. He’s popped up on TSN to voice his opinion about the Maple Leafs, most notably castoff Phil Kessel last season, but that’s it. Wilson sounds rejuvenated. You can hear it in his voice. He’s talkative and friendly, nothing like the image of the prickly deadpanner in Toronto.
“Oh, definitely I feel refreshed,” he said. “When I first got fired, I was almost relieved and happy that I didn’t have to put up with that anymore, answer anymore questions. It probably took me two years to get over it, but I’m definitely over it now.”
Wilson still watches Leaf games. He doesn’t think the current roster has a boatload of talent but likes the work ethic and good habits instilled by new coach Mike Babcock. Wilson suddenly doesn’t have as much time to track his old team, however. He’s back in the game as Team USA’s coach for the 2016 world juniors.
The transition was natural. Although Wilson has no WJC experience, he has helmed the U.S. squad at two Olympics, three world championships and two World Cups, leading the Americans to gold in 1996. He’s had a strong relationship with USA Hockey assistant executive director Jim Johannson for years, and the two stayed in regular contact during Wilson’s hiatus. They would talk about the program in general and check in on each other, but the conversation wasn’t typically about serious hockey commitments. Then, last spring, that changed. They started discussing the world junior coaching position.
“I said, ‘You guys have never asked me to do the junior job, and I’m really willing to do something like that. I owe it to you guys to say I want to coach the team. It would be an honor,’” Wilson said.
And that was that. Wilson got the job once Johannson returned from the World Championship. “He’s very competitive, and that comes out especially in a short tournament,” Johannson said. “He’s also a guy that to me is, in the right way, very direct with the players. He gets the sense of urgency, number one, but secondly, he has the confidence in the players that he knows they have the skill and ability to do it. So he won’t over-coach or over-indulge them with information about how to play hockey.”
Wilson is thoughtful and honest when he talks about the 2016 world junior team. He admits he wishes he could have Dylan Larkin, who the Detroit Red Wings won’t send this year. He knows he’ll build his team around Auston Matthews. He’s fascinated that he’ll coach 2016 projected first-rounder Matthew Tkachuk – because he coached Matthew’s father, 500-goal man Keith, many times with Team USA. Wilson gleefully points out how many Americans rank among the OHL’s top 10 scorers. And he’s also quite the historian. Johannson loves the way Wilson would quiz Leaf players about team lore in the middle of practices and predicts Wilson will do the same with his U.S. juniors.
Wilson can’t wait for the tournament. He got back into scouting in the months leading up to it. He believes his team will medal after bowing out in the quarterfinal the past two years. The natural question to ask, of course, is whether Wilson would parlay WJC success into another NHL gig. He said it’s too soon to think about that. He has interviewed for some coaching jobs and thinks he did well, but he hasn’t received a formal offer since his Toronto days.
“I’m 60 years old, I’m not a spring chicken anymore,” he said. “Anybody looking to hire me has to dig really deep and determine, ‘Do we really want Ron Wilson?’ If the opportunity’s there, I would probably jump at it. It depends. I’m not going to take a last-place team. I’ve probably only got two or three years left in me as a coach.”
Maybe world junior glory won’t translate to NHL work given Wilson’s age. At the very least, it could erase the bad taste left by his last job. That’s a redemption he clearly wants. “I coached 19 years in the NHL as a head coach,” he said. “That’s a long time. I had a lot of success, and I’m not going to let the Toronto experience taint my career. I know I’ve had a good career, so this is just going to be another chance. I’m going to reward USA Hockey with all my experience. It’s as simple as that.”